Missing: Dad comes back to save the day

The old story about the father who abandons his family and then tries to come back into their lives is retold in a Western setting in The Missing, Ron Howard's epic drama that's easily the best of its genre since Unforgiven.

Based on a novel, The Last Ride, by Thomas Eidson, The Missing basically shuffles and redistributes the plot elements of John Ford's The Searchers into a new story that's almost as powerful.

Tommy Lee Jones gets top billing as the macho hero, but the movie pretty much belongs to Cate Blanchett, who should get an Oscar nomination for her performance as Maggie Gilkeson, a tough frontier mama raising two daughters on a New Mexico ranch in 1885.

The girls are growing up strong, but in different ways. The younger, Dot (Jenna Boyd), is a chip off her mother's block, while Lilly, now a teenager, is more headstrong and rebellious. Brake (Aaron Eckhart) provides a masculine presence as Maggie's ranch hand and bed buddy. He wants to marry her, but Maggie's been there and done that. "The notion of it was better'n the doin'," she reports.

Maggie manages to support the family serving as a healer, a skilled but unlicensed doctor. No slouch with a rifle either, she's part Dr. Quinn and part Annie Oakley.

Into this domestic scene strides a man with no name (as far as the script is concerned), although the credits call him Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones). He's the father Maggie hasn't seen in decades, since he went off to live with the Apaches.

She makes it clear she wants no part of him, but when a renegade band of what the cavalry calls "hostiles" kidnaps Lilly with the intent of selling her in Mexico, dad's handy to have around. As someone mentioned earlier, "It takes an Apache to catch an Apache," and he's the closest thing she's got.

The renegades were working as scouts for the cavalry until their chief was killed and they turned against their former employers. They're led by Chidin (Eric Schweig), a "brujo" (witch)– Spanish seems to be a common language for Apaches and gringos. Wiccans will be pleased to see witchcraft taken seriously, rather than treated like a silly superstition, in the film's most intense scene.

Ultimately The Missing is about another common theme: redemption. Jones has a few days in which to make up for a lifetime of being gone.

It's easy for cinematographer Salvatore Totino to look good, working with an unlimited number of the kinds of vistas the wide screen was invented for.

As for Ron Howard, he can check off one more genre on the list of those he's tackled successfully, and that's getting to be quite a list.